For many Nova Scotians, life is a constant struggle; the challenge to make ends meet is even tougher this year because of the rising cost of living. If that and job and income losses due to COVID-19 were not enough--now people must deal with the aftermath of Fiona. Some have lost the contents of their fridge and freezer, and others, their entire homes. The financial assistance the Nova Scotia government announced is welcome news but likely insufficient for those in dire need. $100 in grocery money does not go very far these days.
Dealing with cost increases and emergencies is possible if you have a decent and rising income. That is not the case for the average worker in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia has the second-lowest average weekly earnings in the country—it has been the lowest or second-lowest for many years. And now, thanks to inflation and a lack of wage increases to make up for it, workers face an additional cut in real wages of nearly 5%.
The government can and should take action both within and outside the labour market to help Nova Scotians most in need.
Three of the four Atlantic provinces saw their minimums increase on October 1st, resulting in Nova Scotia with the lowest minimum in the region.
Nova Scotia’s minimum wage went from $13.35 to $13.60. This minimum applies to those covered by the minimum wage order (there are many exceptions). Given current inflation levels, 25 cents—a toonie over an eight-hour shift—is barely a token. Even some business representatives have said these small increases are not worth the hassle of the paperwork required.
This increase is part of the plan to reach $15 by April 1, 2024. This government has said it won’t fast-track the rise to $15. This go-slow approach is bad, not just for workers. It is also bad for employers who struggle to attract and retain employees.
It is time to level up and rebalance that playing field. Businesses have had labour market conditions in their favour for decades. Even when dealing with low inflation, businesses certainly did not share more with their workers; Between 2001 to 2019, the median real wage increased just 11.3% ($18.75 to $20.87 expressed in 2021 dollars).
Our recent living wage report calculated the lowest living wage in Nova Scotia to be $20 in Cape Breton and the highest in Halifax ($23.50). It is well past time for workers to get a substantive raise.
A recent study examining the impact of substantial increases to the minimum wage in Ontario (from $11.60 to $14 per hour) concluded that not only did wages grow, but total employment also increased (including in low-wage sectors), and the racialized wage gap was reduced, especially for women.
Governments in Nova Scotia have consistently sacrificed workers’ rights in favour of increased profits for employers. On balance, this leaves the province struggling with high rates of food insecurity, poverty, health disparities, and a structurally low-waged economy.
Low-wage work represents a significant portion of the labour market in Nova Scotia; 8.1% earn the minimum wage, and just over 10% earn under $15 an hour, 56% of whom are women, 55% are 25 or older, and 55% have post-secondary education. Nearly 50% of workers in our province earn less than the living wage.
Beyond wages, Nova Scotia has some of the weakest labour standards in Canada. For example: sick leave (only three unpaid days are required), overtime only after 48 hours (the longest regular work week in the country), and scant statutory holidays (only six, and even then, many still won’t get paid). 54% of Nova Scotia workers have no access to paid sick leave (and only 20% of workers in accommodation and food services, and 31% of workers who earn less than $25,000). Many workers have no choice but to go to work sick. Surely we have learned that this is bad for business and all of us.
Nova Scotia has also made it difficult for workers to unionize. Unionization is a proven tool to address income inequality and ensure those with the least power in that employer/employee relationship have a voice. Making unionization easier contributes to a healthier democracy inside and outside the workplace.
The government can help Nova Scotians narrow the gap between their income and costs outside of labor market regulation. It can increase income support like the affordable living tax credit. It can address costs by regulating the prices of essentials or expanding what is covered by public services outside the for-profit market, whether for housing, health care, or other critical need.
It is time to address the inadequate protections in Nova Scotia’s minimum standards and time for that $15 minimum wage. The failure to do so sends a message that these essential workers, who are once again stepping up during a crisis, are just not worth it.